'Harmless Error.' (Supreme Court Decides Convictions May Stand Even If Jury Wrongly Allowed to Hear Coerced Confession as Long as There Is Enough Other Evidence to Sustain Verdict) (Editorial)

The Nation, April 15, 1991 | Go to article overview

'Harmless Error.' (Supreme Court Decides Convictions May Stand Even If Jury Wrongly Allowed to Hear Coerced Confession as Long as There Is Enough Other Evidence to Sustain Verdict) (Editorial)


With the help of the newly appointed David Souter, a 5-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court has decided that a conviction may stand even if the jury is wrongly allowed to hear a coerced confession, so long as there is enough other evidence to sustain the verdict. It apparently makes no difference what coercion is used. Rubber hoses or flaying alive-they're all equal before the majesty of the law.

The Burger and Rehnquist Courts have brought more and more defendants' rights under this "harmless error" rule, especially since Sandra Day O'Connor arrived in 1981. The Court held just five years ago that excluding a coerced confession was "so basic to a fair trial" that its admission "aborted the basic trial process." Even the recent majority conceded that the impact of a coerced confession can be "devastating" to the defendant.

The Court's ruling will encourage the more brutal propensities of the police, so vividly illustrated in the recent Los Angeles beating of a motorist. If a trial judge allows a jury to hear a confession, there is a good chance that even if the appellate judges think it should not have been admitted, they will let the conviction stand if they think the defendant is really guilty-although they may in fact base that supposition on the coerced confession. Courts don't like to order new trials, particularly in big, messy cases, and especially if they think the result was right.

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